On African time


Many times I have heard visitors to Africa and even educated Africans complain about our seeming inability to keep time. All these complaints are born of ignorance of the African and their conception of time. It should be understood, as Mbiti writes in African Religions and Philosophy (1969), that time is simply a composition of events which have occurred, those which are taking place now and those which will immediately occur. In our conception, the future is virtually absent because events which lie in it have not taken place, they have not taken place and cannot, therefore, constitute time.

For us, then, time has to be experienced in order to make sense or to become real.

How, then, do we reckon time? We reckon time for a concrete and specific purpose, in connection with events but not just for the sake of mathematics. It is for this reason we had phenomenal calendars, in which events or phenomena which constitute time are reckoned in their relation with one another and as they take place writes Mbiti.

It is for this reason, therefore, it doesn’t what time the sun rises- whether at 5am or at 7am- as long as it rises.

For the technological mind, time is a commodity which must be utilised, sold and bought; but in traditional African life, time has to be created or produced. Man is not a slave of time, instead, he makes as much time as he wants.

As I said in the beginning of this post, many foreigners when they say Africans are always late or wasting time, they are talking from ignorance of what time is in Africa. We are not wasting time, we are either waiting for time or are in the process of producing time.

Next time you are visiting Africa or scheduling an appointment with one, don’t depend too much on your wrist watch, relax. We are never late. Morning is any time between sunrise and midday so be sure we will honour that appointment.

Here is a case of educated African reckoning time linearly 🙂

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

33 thoughts on “On African time

  1. Peter says:

    I don’t think I would be suited to Africa. I get very frustrated when people are not on time.

    It is all very well saying ‘relax’ but I see being cavileer in regard to time as showing a lack of respect for the person who is kept waiting.

    The thing about culture is that it works best when everyone has the same values. In my culture time is to be respected it helps society to work efficiently. Clearly this is not the case in Africa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agee with Peter. That however doesn’t dispute the value of being present to the moment. I don’t see them as contradictory. On the one hand there is respect for relationships (including work, professional appointments & social) and on the other being carefree in the moment. The question becomes when is the time for each?

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      • makagutu says:

        In the city, it makes more sense to use mechanical time. When I am in the countryside, I generally use event time.
        Have a pleasant weekend, Paulette

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    • makagutu says:

      Peter, you know the saying, while in Rome blah blah. Just leave your watch in Aussie and come over.Just don’t ask for 8.00am meeting, say let’s meet in the morning and all shall be well. There is enough time in the day to meet everyone

      Liked by 2 people

      • Peter says:

        Unfortunately I lack the temperment to just go with it and relax. A person was coming around to my house last weekend to borrow the trailer I keep. This person was delayed in turning up and I got so frustrated.

        I used to think I could change my personality, but I think I have reached the age where I have hard wired my brain to think in such a way that it is very hard to change.

        So I will Stay away from Africa.

        I like the approach of one Australian Theatre company that does not let latecomers enter the theatre during the performance, they have to wait until the end of the first act.

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  2. john zande says:

    Brazilians have a similar approach.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Swarn Gill says:

    Thank you for the additional insights into how Africans view time. I teach a course in our honors program at the university on the history of time. Both in the technological history and the history in our understanding the vastness and nature of time. But one of the additional things I try to address is cultural differences in how we perceive time. Time as experienced by humans is much different than how we measure it. We experience time non-linearly and yet we have this linear method of measurement by it. I posit to my class that living in this type of discord is unhealthy. It may be that we can’t get away from our culture that measure time down to minute and seconds, but we can certainly make efforts take parts of the day to experience time without the clock.

    What you describe about the African view of time is similar to many other cultures that measure time by what is called “event time”. For instance here if someone asks us what time we eat dinner, we might say 6 pm. But in Africa, dinner time, is just when you eat dinner. Sunrise is an event. The time it occurs is irrelevant. If you are meeting someone, they might say, we will meet after the cows have gone to pasture. Well when is that? Well, it’s whenever they go to pasture. There is a book you might enjoy reading called A Geography of Time by Robert Levine. Levine did research around the world to try to understand what factors seemed to influence how cultures perceived time. He found some interesting, and perhaps not too surprising results. Generally cities have a faster pace of life than rural areas and are more likely to be more clock conscious. Tropical latitudes are generally going to be more lax towards time (likely because of a general lack of seasonality perhaps). Societies that were more clock conscious tended to be more economically productive. There is a strong correlation between a nations GDP and their attitude towards time. That of course doesn’t mean that the people are happier and I didn’t feel the author claimed any particular value to being more for clock time or event time. In fact my perception was that he found a lot of value in not watching the clock all the time. As the person who made the comment above states, he feels stress when people are not on time. The fact remains is that people are going to be late for one reason or another, and experiencing extra stress over something like that seems foolish in the long run. I believe there is a better balance to be found.

    There are certainly a lot of advantages do being able to keep precise time and to coordinate and synchronize activities better, but as humans I believe we are also best served when we take a break from the clock and just live in the moment, not thinking about the clock. The fact that Africans can do this should be something to learn from, not get frustrated over, but at the same time I can understand how stressful it can feel when you don’t realize such culturally differences exist and there is a collision of culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      Swarn, this is the meat of the post.
      Dinner time is when dinner is had and the same with sleeping time. It is of no consequence whether that is 7.00pm or midnight.
      What Levine wrote about economics is the same thing the author I referred to says. To understand a peoples economic life, you need to understand their concept of time.
      When you think about it in light of what the preacher says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun and all is vanity, there is no need to stress over time. You are here today and the next moment you are wind.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Swarn Gill says:

        The history of Christianity and time have interesting weavings. Interestingly enough, early Christianity had similar notions of time to eastern thought. They saw time as cyclical. In fact countries that tend to believe in concepts like reincarnation and karma, also tend to have more lax attitudes towards time. And for a long time in Christianity they had this notion and also believed that time was a God given gift and thus was not to be counted or measured. But things of course changed. Cyclical views of time didn’t sit well with the church because the sacrifice of Jesus was a special event, people became uncomfortable of the idea of history repeating itself. And the idea of God being a gift and not to be measured worked great for awhile, but as commerce increased the need for money lending also increased. And money lending required measuring time to calculate interest. Initially though Christians were forbidden to be money lenders because it wasn’t being a good Christian to count time (or to collect interest). But Jews could because they were going to hell anyway. Money lending was one of the few professions Jews were allowed to have in some parts of Europe. And not surprisingly, Jews became quite rich and this was a source for quite a lot more antisemitism in Europe. Eventually the Christian church started to change their tune though as they started to use money lenders, and more importantly became money lenders themselves. Travel also plays heavily into the reason why time was measured more accurately, having time zones, etc.

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        • makagutu says:

          In Africa without a belief in hell or a future life with the gods but only of life in the ancestral plane- which lasts as long as you are remembered by name after which you move into non-existence- such future time like eternity simply does not exist.
          How the christians dealt with time sounds quite interesting

          Liked by 1 person

          • Swarn Gill says:

            In some of my readings about the idea of eternity, and philosophies which you are describe, they amount to sort of the same thing actually. That the afterlife is an escape from time. Time basically doesn’t flow in the afterlife, and you no longer experience the passage of time. One could argue that eternity is where time is infinite and thus meaningless. Unlike our life on Earth which is finite and has an expiration. In cyclical views of time, the idea of a beginning and end didn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s believed that this notion of time is part of the reason that for a long time nobody really cared very much to answer the question “how old is the Earth, or how old is the universe?” If everything would happen again, it didn’t really matter. Of course in eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, I believe that nirvana is that escape from the endless cyclic process of life and death and merging with Godhead (which in my mind is very similar to what they are saying when you go to heaven…at least metaphorically).

            Ironically when Christianity changed from having a cyclical philosophy to seeing a beginning and end to creation, this changed the consciousness of followers to start asking the question. And once you start asking the question, you might look to the bible to answer it…which is what early scholars did, but there start to be a lot of puzzles that don’t add up. Such as fossils of creatures that don’t exist anymore, or geologic formations that seem to be the results of small incremental processes over long periods of time. So in a way Christianity was their own undoing in eventually refuting the literally story of creation in the bible. Fun. 🙂

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        • Peter says:

          As a former banker I always found the vilification of charging interest hard to accept. I can only think that the usury rules were dreamt up by a borrower not a lender. Why would any sane person lend money unless they could earn interest, unless it was an act of charity?

          AS modern bankers find, many people are aggrieved when Loans are enforced and the powerful people of Europe often encouraged antisemitism so they could default on their loans. Much like the Teutonic Knights were vilified so the powerful could appropriate their wealth.

          In Australia many farmers seem to think Banks should not be allowed to sell farms to recover debts. They lobby politicians to change the law, but if the law was ever changed as they wanted, they would discover to their cost that banks would simply no longer lend to farmers.

          This is a bit of pet topic of mine, but I realise that I am in the minority in my views.

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          • Swarn Gill says:

            Oh I have no problem with interest rates… I mean they should be reasonable, but competition can help with that. I’m only speaking of the enmity it created. Clearly borrowers generally don’t like to pay interest, as you say, especially when whatever they chose to borrow the money for ends up not working out. Borrowing money is a risk… As is lending it. This it’s not unreasonable to charge interest.

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          • makagutu says:

            Maybe those interest rates make sense. Our interest rates have gone to highs of above 20%. That to me amounts to theft

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          • Peter says:

            In 1989 interest rates on Home loans in Australia reached 17% nowadays they are less that 4%.

            As an aside back in 1991 a group of us bankers caught a taxi, the taxi driver asked what we did, when told he responded ‘how does it feel to know everyone hates you’.

            Australia currently has a Royal Commission into the banks and the revelations have been harrowing, though it has mostly been the bad practices associated with financial advisers and insurance. So banks are on the nose here.

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  4. Barry says:

    I know visitors to Aotearoa New Zealand often complain that we run on “Kiwi time”, while Pakeha Kiwis often complain that the indigenous population run on “Māori time”. It’s all relative 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  5. jim- says:

    One thing I love about Panama. If you stop by someone’s house to say hello, they might just take the day off to visit with you. They have people and family as a priority over work. When I was building my house it was frustrating, but as a social side, no hurrying and worrying. The European section of the city is not that way, and they seem much more unhappy than the natives.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. renudepride says:

    My Kenyan brother, I honestly think that the Africans aren’t the only ones guilty of living life without the burden of a clock. We Greeks are often accused of the same. Growing up in my parent’s home, we were taught that church began on Sundays whenever the priest arrived and began praying the Divine Liturgy. This always baffled Americans who needed to know a precise time.

    I remember once when my mother took Twin and I for a doctors appointment. When we arrived, the receptionist accused us of being late. My mother replied “When you confirmed the appointment you ended the call by telling me you’d see us in the morning. I’m not late. It is still morning.”

    Have a great weekend! Naked hugs!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Time is the thing you unfortunately run out of when you have to pee really, really bad and are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the highway.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Nan says:

    Many years ago (30?), a girlfriend and I visited Australia and New Zealand (both No. and So.). On our way home, we stopped off at Fiji for a couple of days. I’ve never forgotten how relaxed these people are. They don’t walk … they shuffle. Whatever needs to be done will get done … eventually. And they smiled a lot …

    Liked by 3 people

  9. These differing cultural perspectives on time are very interesting. Even in science, time is something of a mystery. Is it a real tangible manifestation of our universe? Or, is it simply perception?

    Entropy is the gradual decay of order into disorder; however, it is not a constant. Its rate varies in a relative way much like time itself is relative.

    Life is intimately reactive to time. Many species have biological methods to perceive the passage of time, and many animals have “internal clocks” in the brains to help do so.

    For me, time and space are the same thing. I see it as analogous to a skyscraper with an infinite number of floors endlessly rising like an escalator. Each floor is a three-dimensional snapshot of a moment in time. Take an elevator up to a higher floor, and you travel into the future. Take an elevator down to a lower floor, and you travel into the past. Therefore, this view hypothesizes that the past, present, and future are coexistent.

    Liked by 3 people

    • makagutu says:

      In philosophy, time and space are the conditions of understanding. We cannot think of phenomena out of time and space. But what time and space are remain, as you say, a real mystery.

      Liked by 2 people

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